When I first began to work with missionary Ken Johnson, we published a little paper called the “Missionary Messenger.” This was back in the early-1970s when all that we had to prepare the copy was an old typewriter. Some of you might remember that the letters on typewriters at that time were all the same width. A lowercase “L” was just as wide as a capital “W” or “M.” It didn’t bother us at the time, but words had big gaps in them because a tiny “i” was next to a “w.” Also the space between the words was just the same size as each of the letters. As a result, not only did the letters line up across the page, but also every letter was underneath the letter on the line above and below. Then we bought a series of new typewriters, which possessed some of the latest innovations. Not only could we change the style of type by changing a ball inside the machine. But eventually we had a typewriter which made the letter “i” take up a third of the space of an “m” and half the size of a “d” or “e.” So no longer did the type up and down all run straight because all the letters were a different width.
These innovations in typesetting created some interesting problems, however. In the earliest days, if we wanted the end of all the lines to come out nice and even, we would have to add spaces between sentences and sometimes extra spaces between words. And when the letters began to all be different sizes, we would have to carefully use special keys which could add different sizes of white space. We could even squeeze letters closer together if we had to. When space is added or reduced between letters the term is “kerning,” and to add space between lines is called “leading.” Both of those terms came out of an even earlier age, when every letter was set in place by hand.
Then in the mid-1980s along came the first home computers. In 1986, at a Radio Shack store on Sprague Avenue, I bought one of the fanciest computers of the day and took it back to Canada. That machine with its 8086 processor and its 10 megabyte internal hard-drive, one of the first in its field, could actually make the ends of every line of type come out even without me having to add space manually. It greatly reduced the amount of time it took to produce our newspaper and tracts. Then shortly after that, I started my own typesetting business, using another specially designed computer. Judy and I created type for printing companies and publishing houses, before they all bought their own computers.
What I’ve just described to you – about making a column of type line up evenly on both ends, or to be even on one side but not the other, or to be centered on the page and uneven on both ends – is called “justification.” And still on my latest computer I can put the cursor over a symbol at the top of the page and up pops a little explanation which says “Justification – align text in document.” Clicking on that button I can spread type across the page, or align it to one side, or center it – instantly. “Justification” is the aligning of typed text across a document. But it’s also several other things – one of which is extremely – extremely – important.
Sometimes a speaker may be talking about making himself look good or giving himself an appearance of being right. Job once said, “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me: if I say, I am perfect, it shall also prove me perverse.” People sometimes try explain away something that they have done – they try to justify themselves. For example, a person might lie and later explain that he didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. He tried to justify his sin by making it line up with some good intention which he had at the time. Later Job said, “God forbid that I should justify you: till I die I will not remove mine integrity from me.” He told his accusers, “I refuse to agree or to align myself with your assessment of me. My integrity is intact, my sins have not brought this punishment from God upon my family.”
The Lord Jesus was once talking about His cousin, John the Baptist, and He made an interesting comment. “All the people that heard him, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.” When those people came to John to be baptized, they were agreeing with God, they were aligning themselves with the Lord’s assessment of them – they were sinners, and their baptism was a testimony of their recognition that God was right.
Another way that the word is used in the Bible is seen in Luke 10 – “Behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? He said unto him, What is written in the law? how readest thou? And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live. But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbour?” This pharisaic lawyer was apparently not a kind man, and didn’t care much about anyone but himself. He knew the scripture, because that was the kind of lawyer he was – Moses’ lawyer – but he refused to practice what the law demanded. That is what pharisaism is all about – self-justification and the condemnation of others. In order to make himself look good – to justify himself – the man asked, “and who is my neighbour?”
My dictionary offers five definitions for the word “justify.” One is: “to adjust the spacing between words and letters so that a line ends evenly at a straight margin.” But the first is: “to demonstrate or prove something or someone to be just, right or valid.” There is a legal definition, and another is: “to declare something to be free of blame – to absolve.” And then there is a theological definition: “to free a human being of the guilt and penalty attached to sin. Used only of God.” That may not be a perfect definition, but considering that it comes from a secular dictionary it is useable. Theologically, “to justify” is to “declare someone to be righteous.” That person doesn’t necessarily really have to be righteous, but he, or she, is declared to be righteous. And if God makes that declaration, then it is so. God once said, “Let there be light,” and where there was no light – immediately there was light. And when God has said, “I declare this sinner to be righteous,” then that sinner immediately becomes righteous before God.
But before he can expound that point, Paul has to destroy another kind of justification.
Adam was given a piece of fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and he took a bite. We know from several scriptures that he knew exactly what he was doing, although we don’t know what he was thinking. Then when the Lord confronted him, Adam tried to justify what he had done. Genesis 3:12 – “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” He tried to square up the margins of his life to make them look better than they really were. “Lord, you gave me a woman, and she gave me some fruit, so I’m not really as guilty as it might look.” But he was. And when the Lord turned to the woman she tried to justify what she had done. “What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.” “I was deceived by that treacherous serpent, so I am not as sinful as it appears.” But she was. It’s interesting to notice in Genesis 3 that the only one not interested in justifying himself was the Devil.
What if Adam quickly took an ax and chopped off the head of the serpent, before God could have spoken to it? It might have been a good thing to do, and the Lord might not have punished him, although we don’t know that for sure. But even if there was a law which said that all snakes should be immediately killed – that would not have squared those sinners with the Lord. What if the man and his wife had fallen to the ground before the Lord and begged to be forgiven? They might have been forgiven – in fact I think that they eventually were forgiven. But again that wouldn’t have corrected what had already been done. What if they promised to go to church every week for the rest of their lives…. To tithe off every pay-check they ever received…. To sit on the front pew and take notes of every sermon that they heard…. To bring twice as much food to the pot luck that they would eat themselves…. To pray for the success of all the godly missionaries in the world and to visit the sick and fatherless? Still none of these things could erase what they had done in disobeying the command of God. No obedience, penance, assistance, or reverence could undo or straighten out their sin. When it comes to sin, there is no such thing as real self-justification.
Here in Romans 3:20 Paul begins with a “therefore” which takes us back to what he has been telling us. Beginning in chapter one, he has been saying that neither Jews nor Gentiles can elude or evade God’s judgment for their sin. The Jews, who possess the oracles of God, the Word of God, are guilty, because, while they point their fingers at everyone else, they are breaking the same laws. And those who do not possess God’s Word simply live in the most abominable ways. “Even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind,” And “we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things.” “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight.”
That no flesh shall be justified in the sight of God by the deeds of the law – means that no one can be regarded as righteous. “There is none righteous, no, not one.” Paul took verse 20 verse from David’s 143rd Psalm. “Hear my prayer, O LORD, give ear to my supplications: in thy faithfulness answer me, and in thy righteousness. And enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” The reference to “in God’s sight” suggests a courtroom. “Enter not into judgment with thy servant: for in thy sight shall no man living be justified.” God was not unaware of what Adam and Eve had done, even though He was asking questions. The questions were designed to draw out the wickedness and then the confession of the sinners. Our first parents knew that they were on trial before the Honorable, Holy and Omniscient Judge God. They had realized that they were naked, and so they hurriedly fashioned new clothes for each other. They approached the bench only when they were summoned, and they came in fright, if not absolute terror. They tried to justify their crime, but the all-knowing Judge knew every detail, and no volume of explanation could align, or make right, what they did with the law that they had been given. They were guilty in the sight of God. They were unjustified in the sight of God. They were unjustifiable. They were helpless and hopeless, even though all their sins could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
By the deeds of the law it is not possible to make an ugly page of inky hen-scratchings look respectable in anyone’s eyes but those of a half-blind hen.
This is what Paul wants to teach us over the next several chapters: There is a justification available to sinners like us. It’s a justification in every sense of the word, by which the Lord sees us as perfectly righteous. It’s a justification which brings every line and corner of our lives into perfect agreement with His holiness. It corrects the all those places were we come short of the glory of God, and it corrects all those places where we have transgressed and stepped over and beyond the laws that He has established. In justification, not only does God fix the length of our lines so that they match His margins perfectly, He even corrects all the misspellings in the midst of those lines.
But the point is – IT IS THE LORD who does this, not the sinner. It is the righteousness of God, and it is given to all them that believe. It is possible only through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Christ has been set forth to be a “propitiation” – a satisfaction – for all the sins which we have committed. And in the work of the Lord Jesus, God conforms perfectly with the demands of his own law, and yet he is able to justify sinners like us.
You see, the law is the reflection of God’s holy heart. It says to Adam, “In the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.” And it says to the rest of us, “The wages of sin is death.” But when the eternal son of God – when the holy and absolutely righteous Second Person of the God-head died, He did so taking the place of millions of sinners like us. Since the demand of the law has been met by the death of Christ, God was perfectly just in justifying those sinners for whom He died.
Through Christ Jesus – ragged, ugly, sinners like us can be declared perfect, righteous and pleasing in the sight of God. The evidence of that justification – the evidence of that salvation – is seen only in those who repent of their sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. You do see your sinfulness don’t you? Your faith and hope for deliverance from your sin, are firmly placed in the Lord Jesus aren’t they? Please, please, if you have any doubts, please talk to someone here today about the condition of your soul. Repent of your sin and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.